“The Mastermind y lo contrario” is a collaborative art piece by novelist David Unger and visual artist Anne Gilman currently installed at the group show Livre d’Artiste d’Aujourd’hui: Interdisciplinary Collaborations at the Center for Book Arts in Manhattan. Traditionally, a livre d’artiste, or “artist’s book,” is an artwork produced in the form of a publication. Alexander Campos, the Center’s executive director and curator, put together, with Maddy Rosenberg, curator at CENTRAL BOOKING, the exhibition, which considers the livre d’artiste as a joint creative venture between different types of artists: writers, poets, translators, musicians, painters, illustrators, glass blowers, videographers, and designers. “The Mastermind y lo contrario” is a visualized version of Unger’s novel, through Gilman’s eyes.
Unger and Gilman live together in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Unger was born in Guatemala and spent his first five years there, and visits annually. His insight into life in Guatemala is a large part of his work: all of his books were published in Latin America, among them, Life in the Damn Tropics (2004) and The Price of Escape (2011). Many sensory and geographical elements filter through The Mastermind, his fifth book (as yet unpublished), a political thriller. The story is fictional, but is based on a real event in 2009 that shook Guatemala: the murder of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a corporate attorney who allegedly orchestrated his own assassination.
Back at Northwestern, I was fortunate enough to meet the excellent writer Dan Chaon, who came and talked to our writing class. I remember turning in a story to him that was way too long, some twenty-two-page mess about a lady who had a huge starfish and could see the future. I think the character was abducted by these two brothers—I don’t know, I’ve repressed the rest of it.
But Dan was so kind to me about this story, and he told me I should be reading Kelly Link, George Saunders, Kevin Brockmeier. He alerted me to these contemporary writers who were writing weird, inventive stuff. They were New Wave Fabulists, he said.
And I owe them a huge debt; I went on to become a blood-sworn fan of those writers. I felt a sort of tail-wagging joy, you know, reading these story collections. A recognition. It was like Dan rode through town and handed me a literary family tree.
As a journalist, I’ve read roughly 1,000 autopsy reports and spent much of my career reporting on fatal encounters between police officers and civilians. Here’s some of what Baden found and what experts will be looking for as they examine Brown’s corpse:
1. Evidence that Brown was fleeing from the officer who shot him, Darren Wilson. Shots to the back are a red flag, indicating the victim may have been running from the officer rather than attacking. The basic law on use of force turns on whether a police officer acted from a “reasonable belief” that he or she was facing a lethal threat. Baden—who was hired by Brown’s family—believes Brown was shot at least six times with all the bullets striking him from the front.
Witnesses have said Brown and Wilson wrestled in the moments before the killing.
2. Signs of a physical altercation. Forensic pathologists study the exterior of the body for bruises, scrapes and lacerations which can be signs that a scuffle preceded the fatal shots. Witnesses have said Brown and Wilson wrestled in the moments before the killing. On Baden’s diagram of Brown’s body, the doctor does not appear to have noted any significant injuries other than the gun shot wounds. Baden did not find gunpowder residue on Brown’s hands, one piece of evidence that would likely be present if the two men were struggling for control of a gun discharged at close range.
3. Bullet trajectory. Shots fired at a downward angle may indicate the officer fired while the victim was on his knees or lying on the ground. A person in those positions generally poses less of a physical threat. Baden said a shot to Brown’s head appeared to have come from above; he believes this was the fatal shot.
Some experts say that incidents in which a civilian has been hit with a single shot are more suspicious than those with multiple shots.
4. Number of shots. Baden voiced concern over the fact that Brown was hit by at least six shots. The doctor, who served earlier in his career as chief medical examiner for New York City and as an expert for the New York State Police, was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “In my capacity as the forensic examiner for the New York State Police, I would say, ‘You’re not supposed to shoot so many times.’” The number of shots may or may not be significant. Training on lethal force varies from department to department. Many forces train officers to continue firing until the suspect has been completely subdued. Some experts say that incidents in which a civilian has been hit with a single shot are more suspicious than those with multiple shots: The lone bullet could have been fired accidentally or in a moment of rage.
Baden’s report suggests the shots were fired from farther away.
5. Gunshot residue. The presence of gunshot residue (GSR) on the skin or clothes of the victim may mean that the person was shot at very close range. Baden found no GSR on Brown’s body, but said he did not scrutinize his clothing. Additionally, bullets fired from a few inches away leave distinct wound patterns on the flesh. Baden’s report suggests the shots were fired from farther away.
6. The presence of alcohol or drugs. Baden has not reviewed the toxicology tests, but results of those tests should be available soon (though it could take the authorities months to release them). Forensic pathologists typically fill vials with bodily fluids — urine, blood, or vitreous humor, the fluid within the eyeballs — and send them off to outside laboratories to be screened for alcohol, prescription drugs, and street drugs. If drugs or alcohol are discovered Brown’s system, that information might provide some additional context to the fatal events.
In some police-civilian clashes, the evidence discovered during an autopsy turns out to be crucial. In the case of Michael Brown, it’s not clear how useful this trio of autopsies will be. As the nation tries to understand what happened on August 9, the autopsy results may well not prove conclusive on the key questions.
- Guernica: Did your understanding of Iraqi poetry help you develop these characters?
- Elliott Colla: It does not take much to imagine the humanity of people you don’t know. An American author does not need to know a word of Arabic to write a book like the one I wrote. All of this material is there in English. That’s part of the reason why I put the notes at the end; if you want to read the poetry, all the translations are there.
During that time that we were courting, one of the things I was trying to understand was her sensibility, and I was looking for something genuine. I wanted to know if she was one of those girls who maybe just wanted to leave Gaza. Some girls might just be thinking, Hey, this guy’s a US citizen! I was looking for a sweetness inside, like a smile that’s too sweet to be fake. And I saw that, I saw something genuine in her.
The way this book came about was very strange. I stumbled on a book in a used bookstore called “Creating Beauty To Cure The Soul.” And it’s a history of the origins of plastic surgery in the West. And it came to me just while I was leafing through the book. What if there was a procedure that went way beyond these sorts of relatively small modifications and was a kind of racial reassignment surgery like gender reassignment surgery where a person, believing that they were of a different race inside, could be completely transformed?
When I teach Another Country to my undergraduate students—who were born in the 1990s and came of age around the same time as The L Word and the 2008 Obama campaign—I’m always surprised that they shrink at reading Baldwin’s descriptions of interracial and gay desire out loud. Something about seeing these relationships all at once, on the page, where they can’t be ironized or taken back, is bewildering to them. The word that comes up most often in our discussions is “raw”: raw like a scab picked off, raw like the worst insult, like the conversation you never want to have. That this book is more than 50 years old hardly seems to matter: they speak of the characters in the present tense, sharing their sense of newness, friction, even alarm. And every time one or two of them turn to me and ask: Why aren’t there more novels like this? This book changed my life. Why doesn’t everybody read it? How come I’ve never heard of it before?
The Unfinished, by D. Nurkse
For Joe Haldeman
We mounted a force against Alpha Centauri,
cruising past Io, vanadium mist, the comet mines,
but when we arrived, a thousand years had passed,
no one remembered how negotiations broke down
over a garbled pronoun, how the engine of syntax
sealed shut and began to hum.
So we reduced a few villages,
slaughtered cattle, salted a field.
When we returned by a pinprick in darkness
we found ourselves in childhood,
creeping on the lino under stinging diapers.
In the dim window that star blazed
insidious as your missing pupil—
was it you we meant to conquer,
white page, you against whom
we raise our tower of blocks?
Originally published at Guernica.
My mother called to me but I stopped my ears with my fingers so I couldn’t hear her. I took one step forward, waited, and then kept going. The blood was pumping in my ears against my fingertips like I was under water. The mill floor had been swept and I could see the broom marks and where they piled and scooped up the dust. It was cool and silent inside and crammed with machinery. I’d heard the mill sounds for as long as I could remember. It was strange, it being so quiet. I thought: I’m a little machine and when I go silent I’ll be silent and I’ll be dead.